Scripting the future of further education in the UK

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So much of our VET system draws inspiration from the UK, including the move to marketisation.

The Association of Colleges, in partnership with FETL, has ‘scripted the future’ of FE in the UK. There are lessons for us too.

Why this study?

This monograph, authored by Professor Ewart Keep of Oxford University of the Association of Colleges (AOC) and the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) focused on Further Education (FE). It’s so valuable as it examines some of the fundamental issues Australian VET faces too: being financially constrained, addressing “abrupt and constant change” and caught between meeting demands of employers and the needs of the economy and fulfilling a social purpose mission focused on promoting social justice and equity. It is, in Keep’s words, a ‘perfect storm’.

Marketisation and contestability

Keep points out that:

“Marketisation and increased levels of competition and contestability have transformed the environment in which colleges operate [in England]” so that the system has become “a set of inter-connected markets or quasi-markets for different streams of FE activity.”

This really challenges the sector’s leaders because management and leadership teams need to “arrive at and reconcile the trade-offs between commercial pressures and delivering wider social outcomes” while maintaining their competitive advantage and delivering on their core mission and values. This can lead, as it has in Australia, to some institutions “pursuing students who [have] the best chance of success and neglecting those whose needs [are] greatest.” As in Australia, FE in England “finds itself delivering and selling products that have been designed by someone else, usually with little or no direct input from colleges themselves.”

This is all overlain by competition from schools and the higher education sectors, new entrants to the market, national versus local ‘markets’, consolidation of provision through amalgamations and take-overs, the sub-contracting of services and the regulation of these markets to ensure accountability. These and other complexities are a feature of Australian VET too, which Keep describes for England’s FE system as like the ‘Wild West’. It also raises a critical question: ‘What does successful provision look like?’

Some possible future scenarios in the UK

In the light of a possible review of the VET system if Labor wins Government federally at the next Australian election, looking at the scenarios painted by Professor Keep for the UK may help prepare us for how Australian VET might change. He outlines three possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: Markets rule, tertiary institutions emerge in response

In this first scenario, and amongst other things:

“The mantra is that the ‘customer is king’, and a central belief is that well-informed individual choice (by student or firm) will, at aggregate level, produce the optimal skills investment outcomes. Planning and state intervention, viewed as ‘second guessing’, are out of fashion and favour.”

Scenario 2: A mixed economy, a messy marketplace and policy tensions

In this scenario:

“Overall, they want the best of both worlds, and believe that with the right combination of accountability systems, funding and other incentives they can achieve a balance between competitive behavior and cooperation.”

So, this means knowing who the customer is and managing supply and demand, dealing with the repercussions of institutional failure and managing the tensions between local and national needs.

Scenario 3: The re-discovery and re-invention of a systems approach

This scenario calls for an:

“explicit retreat from markets and competition, and instead a renewed emphasis on traditional models of locally-based systems of provision and accountability, married with what is the possibility of a more favourable overall financial settlement for education and a new focus on entitlements to lifelong learning.”

And by the way

There is a great webinar based on the monograph. Have a look if you have about an hour to spare sometime.

Scripting the future of further education in the UK | VDC